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Film

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Today May or May Not Be a Good Day to Watch '537 Votes,' The New Documentary on the 2000 Recount Fiasco in Florida

Posted By on Wed, Nov 4, 2020 at 11:31 AM

537 VOTES
  • 537 Votes

With the eyes of the nation once again on slim election margins, it's tempting to look back at the 2000 debacle that earned Florida the title of State Most Likely to Screw Up Democracy. The documentary 537 Votes does so in an entertaining, energetic fashion, although its focus is notably selective.

In a tightly reported and edited one hour and 44 minutes, the movie argues that the infamous Bush/Gore recount fiasco was actually the culmination of years of frothing anti-Castro sentiment on the part of Miami's Cuban community – or at least an extremely vocal portion of that community with inordinate access to talk radio and the corridors of political power.

The first act of the doc revisits the Elián González controversy, in which the Clinton administration ran afoul of Cuban-American conservatives by taking the surprisingly controversial stance that 5-year-old González should be returned to his father in Cuba rather than forced to stay with American relatives he hardly knew. The die was cast for payback at the polls, director Billy Corben suggests – OK, shouts through a bullhorn – and the fecklessness of Miami-Dade County's young Democratic mayor, Alex Penelas, was the match that ignited the kindling.

We're told that Penelas' unwillingness to alienate the more fanatical members of his constituency ultimately let him to look the other way as the infamous "Brooks Brothers Riot" of Nov. 22, 2000, saw the presidential recount shut down by a bused-in throng of well-connected political operatives. (Hey, there's Roger Stone! Wonder whatever happened to him.)

The cultural context is advanced via an intoxicating mixture of clips from late-night TV, morning news shows and South Park. (You'll be forgiven for having forgotten the degree to which Janet Reno kept them all in business.) And to support the notion that Miami was an only quasi-civilized hotbed of violent retribution, there's plenty of pumping Latin music on the soundtrack and more repetitions of the phrase "banana republic" than you'd hear in five trips to the mall.

The borderline racism is somewhat unsettling, to be sure, especially when one considers the aspects of the recount story 537 Votes chooses not to revisit. The film is so fixated on its central thesis that Miami Cubans enabled the dismantling of our free and fair elections process – leading, we're told, to the disasters of Sept. 11 and Operation Enduring Freedom – that it nearly ignores the crucial experiences of other communities.

Most surprisingly, the appearance of the infamous Katherine Harris is limited to a brief mention of the conflict of interest inherent in her dual roles as Florida's Secretary of State and co-chair of the George W. Bush presidential campaign here. There's no acknowledgement of her having purged the state's rolls in advance of tens of thousands of eligible voters, a disproportionate amount of them Black. The closest thing we get to the concept of anti-Black political persecution is a post-election-night exchange between Chris Rock and Wanda Sykes in which they bemoan white people's proclivity for fouling things up. Just which white people did that to which Black people, and how, is a matter Corben apparently can't be bothered with.

Admitting that the fix was in from the very start – and in a way that had nothing in particular to do with Miami – would deny 537 Votes a certain amount of its drama, but also its very specific grievances. Even if you can't dispute any of its individual assertions, the movie comes across as DNC revenge porn lobbed by one demographic at another, while the concerns of a third go largely unaddressed.

537 Votes ends on an ominous suggestion that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, but you have to wonder if its self-styled hero-victims have fully ingested that lesson themselves.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2020

HBO Adaptation of Roald Dahl Cult Classic "The Witches" Is Worth a Watch for Anne Hathaway's Performance

Posted By on Wed, Oct 28, 2020 at 12:50 PM

COURTESY HBO MAX
  • Courtesy HBO Max
Something wicked this way comes — and it’s the uncanny valley.

Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of Roald Dahl’s fantastical and terrifying novel The Witches may not live up to its cult classic 1990 predecessor but it’s at least worth a watch for Anne Hathaway’s clearly-having-the-time-of-her-life performance.

Released last week on HBO Max, Zemeckis’ story unfolds in the 1960s American South. Our protagonist, a recently orphaned boy — who is never referred to by name in this film, but is endearingly played by child actor Jahzir Kadeem Bruno — goes to live with his sweet-but-tough grandmother (Octavia Spencer). Chris Rock, as Bruno (but older), narrates the tall tale in his usual wise-cracking way.

When the boy goes to a grocer with his grandmother, he encounters a woman who offers him a piece of candy. While in the aisle, a snake slithers out of her clothing and inches toward him. The boy tells his grandmother what he saw and she then spins a yarn about witches, with their bald, scabby heads (from wig rash); deformed claw hands; huge nostrils (for sniffing out children, who smell like dog poo to them); and demon mouths (which open from ear to ear and can be covered by makeup).

Witches love nothing more than seeing children suffer, or better yet, exterminated altogether, she says, and recalls the time a witch turned her childhood best friend, Alice, into a chicken.

As legend go, a witch never truly leaves a child alone once she has her eyes set on them, so to avoid a similar fate, the pair set off to an upscale hotel off the Alabama Gulf Coast in hopes of hiding out.

Irony has it that their escape plan lands them in the middle of a conference at that same hotel, swarming with dozens of kid-hungry witches.

As grandmother and grandson, Spencer and Bruno are a charming duo and their bond warms the heart. The first chunk of the movie develops their relationship enough to make viewers care about whatever fate may befall them.

This set-up also accounts for the flick’s largest divergence. Both Nicolas Roeg’s cult favorite 1990 adaptation and Dahl’s story take place in the UK and Norway, versus America, and definitely do not star Black protagonists. Much of the rest, however, is the same. Zemeckis, unlike Roeg, stays mostly faithful to Dahl’s original end. (Still, Zemeckis’ take is sugarcoated.)

This iteration is not as macabre as its forerunner, which relied on Jim Henson’s creepy puppetry and prosthetics. That’s not to say the witches of 2020 aren’t ghastly, but their stretchy CGI faces — with giant, Glasgow-smile-esque grins (seemingly the influence of co-writer Guillermo del Toro) — are more unnerving than fodder for nightmare fuel. Hathaway’s Grand High Witch often steps into the uncanny valley. Like Anjelica Huston, she turned in a full-camp performance.

Also on deck is hotel manager Mr. Stringer, played by Stanley Tucci, whose main characteristic is that he’s very, very confused and most definitely doesn’t get compensated enough to deal with such shenanigans.

Spoiler ahead: The boy, along with a newfound pal from the hotel, are turned into cute mice via a new witch potion (dispensed in candy). And we discover the boy's pet mouse he carries with him was also once a kid. My cat found a lot to love — the CGI mouse-children had him pawing at the screen throughout its 105-minute run.

Set in a post-Jim Crow South, the film occasionally points to racism but doesn’t tweak the narrative enough to create any solid commentary beyond the basics, like staff suggesting a woman like Spencer wouldn't be able to afford a stay at the hotel. More could have been subverted to root out the problems of its source material. Dahl was known to be anti-Semitic, racist and misogynist. His books are not divorced from these views — many of his characters, subtext or not, are based on hateful caricatures. Yes, his stories have influenced generations of children, but those adapting his work should do so with modern understanding or not at all.

Zemeckis’ The Witches had the potential to say something new but instead chose to drop the same story into a different setting without texturing it to the context of its period. What results is a film that, while spooky fun for families, begs the question: Why did this remake need to exist?

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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

'Borat Subsequent Moviefilm' Embraces (And Somehow Eclipses) the Absurdity of 2020

Posted By on Tue, Oct 27, 2020 at 9:08 AM

screen_shot_2020_10_26_at_1.46.03_pm.5f970b7e7c9cd.jpg

When Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat hit theaters in 2006, few would have guessed how influential (and prescient) the movie’s blend of political satire and real-world spectacle would be by the time its sequel dropped. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (aka Borat 2) was released Oct. 23 on Amazon Prime.

In recent years, Baron Cohen’s fourth-wall-breaking approach to comedy has spawned a microgenre of its own. Comedy Central series Nathan for You, which debuted in 2013, zeroes in on a uniquely American sense of tenderness and futility by offering suspect advice to struggling small-business owners, while Adult Swim’s The Eric Andre Show totally rejects narrative structure to create moments of unadulterated chaos.

What’s even more notable, though, is how Borat’s absurdity has seeped into the banality of everyday life — far beyond your co-worker blurting out “mah wife” at the water cooler for a few forced laughs.

YouTube and social media have made the entire world a stage for Baron Cohen-esque moments — entirely unscripted ones at that. Just spend a lunch break scrolling through Twitter or the “PublicFreakout” subreddit and you’ll find no shortage of clips exposing the panic and anger of folks pushed past their comfort zone. In fact, many of the stunts Baron Cohen orchestrated for the Borat Subsequent Moviefilm were filmed by bystanders and propagated online before disappearing into the digital ether as the internet moved on to consume its next spectacle.

It’s for all of these reasons that I expected the new Borat to come off as clumsy; outdated, even. Luckily, I was very wrong.

Instead of retooling his formula, Baron Cohen doubles down on the social commentary. Subsequent Moviefilm is an appropriately ham-fisted story for unsubtle times, centering on the titular Kazakh journalist’s return to the States in order to offer Mike Pence his daughter’s (Maria Bakalova) hand in marriage. If he succeeds — landing Kazakhstan in the same axis of influence as Russia, Brazil, and North Korea — he’ll be spared execution for the shame that the first Borat flick brought upon his native country.

Immediately upon Borat’s return to the United States, the film addresses Baron Cohen’s biggest challenge in producing a sequel: the success of its predecessor.

Borat’s gray suit and mustache are so recognizable, he can’t cook up any hijinks without blowing his cover. Pedestrians clamor to get photos with him, shop owners call his bluff, and a Halloween store stocks costumes of his likeness. Thus, Baron Cohen must disguise himself as Borat in disguise, adding layers of surreality to his already-strange setups.

The best moments of the movie arrive when we're able to marvel at the complexity of these stunts, which you’ve probably already heard about in the news. How was he able to sneak a hyper-realistic Trump mask and fatsuit into this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, briefly interrupting Mike Pence’s speech? Who scheduled Baron Cohen to perform as a country artist at an anti-COVID-19 lockdown rally? Is Rudy Giuliani really that horny and gullible?

These scenes, which are really just more ambitious versions of the ruses Baron Cohen pulled in his 2018 docu-series Who Is America?, feel like watching a Rube Goldberg machine in action, your breath bated in equal parts horror and delight as you wait to see how far he’s able to go with his pranks.

The movie’s plot exists mainly as a vehicle for Baron Cohen to move from place to place, and you can almost feel its components being shuffled and rearranged as the film’s focus diverts from Mike Pence when Cohen is forced to quarantine with eccentric, QAnon-loving locals. The central father-daughter bond adds a little charm to the movie, but their chemistry never really reaches its full potential until its adorable (scripted) conclusion, in which the pair introduces feminism and progressive politics to their home village.

In the end, the second Borat is more technically impressive than its precursor, but I suspect it’ll be less rewatchable, thanks to its reliance on current events and pure shock value. It’s more of an “event” than a timeless artwork — which may be to the film’s benefit when we’re all stuck watching movies at home, blessed with an abundance of cinema to consume at the click of a remote.

Embrace the spectacle while you can: We could all use little real-world excitement that doesn’t come at our own expense.

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Thursday, October 22, 2020

Batshit Crazy 'Bullets of Justice' Leads a New Round of Halloween Movies You Can Stream Right Now

Posted By on Thu, Oct 22, 2020 at 4:39 PM

SHUDDER
  • Shudder
As we continue our zombie shuffle toward Halloween, the greatest night of the year, the veil between worlds begins to part, the number of avoid-at-all-cost titles diminishes and more fantastic and terrifying visions are bequeathed.

The Mortuary Collection
4.5 stars, 108 minutes, Shudder


One of horror’s most entertaining genres, the anthology, has seen a massive uptick in both quality and quantity in the 13 years since the gold standard, “Trick ‘r Treat,” debuted.

“The Mortuary Collection” stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the all-time greats. Writer-director Ryan Spindell’s gory bouquet truly has something for everyone, and Spindell thankfully sticks the landing by delivering a wrap-around story that’s just as good as the short segments contained therein.

Set in the town of Raven’s End, where newspaper headlines warn that the Boggy Bay Tooth Fairy remains on the loose, mortician Montgomery Dodd (Clancy Brown) regales a young job applicant, Sam (Caitlin Custer), with a flurry of dark wonders.

“As with all stories, it’s not the length of the tale, but the quality of content,” Dodd says, and boy howdy, he ain’t lying.

From a pretty pickpocket who discovers a portal to the Elder Gods, to a college freshman (Ema Horvath) looking to spread her seed, to the phantasmagorical mindfuck that awaits a caregiver who fails to ease his wife’s suffering, “The Mortuary Collection” is a ghoulish delight that commands your attention.

The Deeper You Dig
4 stars, 95 minutes, Blu-Ray and streaming


From the twisted minds of The Adams Family (writer-director John Adams, his wife, co-writer/director Toby Poser, and their daughter, actor Zelda Adams), “The Deeper You Dig” is a stark and surprising ghost story that creeps and claws its way under your skin and burrows deep into your subconscious.

Ivy (Poser) is a local spiritualist who makes her living reading tarot cards and channeling the departed spirits of loved ones missed by her elderly clientele. Ivy’s daughter, Echo (Zelda Adams), is a wise-beyond-her-years goth-girl teenager. And Kurt (John Adams) is new in town, a drifter who plans to renovate and flip a long-dilapidated property next door to Ivy’s home.

These three lives will intersect in ways both familiar and unexpected, but that’s not what makes “The Deeper You Dig” such a discovery.

Adams and Poser approach each scene with imagination and ambition, using light and shadow to phenomenal effect. Their take on the overused ‘purgatory’ trope is revelatory. And the bond between Poser and Zelda Adams, as real-life mother and daughter, radiates off the screen, infusing “The Deeper You Dig” with an urgency and aching sorrow that resonates and hits home.

Love and Monsters
3.5 stars, 109 minutes, Premium Video-on-Demand


Nine years after breaking out in MTV’s “Teen Wolf,” and thankfully two years past the conclusion of his “Maze Runner” trilogy, Dylan O’Brien has been gifted with a new potential franchise, and it’s so much better than anyone likely expected.

“Love and Monsters” imagines a world decimated by twin disasters. First, an extinction-level asteroid is blown up prior to impact. But the fallout from the bombs, which spreads across the globe, causes everyday creatures like cockroaches, ants, earthworms and centipedes to grow exponentially into massive monsters that lay waste to cities and kill most of humanity.

Joel (O’Brien) was just 17 when the world as he knew it ended, thick in the throes of first love with Aimee (Jessica Henwick), and excited for college. Now, seven years later, he lives in an underground bunker that’s constantly being attacked by giant critters. By chance, he reconnects via short-wave radio with Aimee, who is surviving 85 miles away on the northern California coast with another group.

“Love and Monsters” is both a coming-of-age story and a robust survival thriller. The special effects, a healthy mix of practical and CGI, are solid. The cast, including Michael Rooker as a wise mentor, commits wholeheartedly. And just when it ends, you can’t wait to see more.

Bullets of Justice
3.5 stars, 79 minutes, Streaming


“Bullets of Justice,” the latest balls-out assault on cinema from writer-director Valeri Milev, is batshit crazy in the best possible way.

Maybe it’s the genetically mutated German pig soldiers who fly around on jet packs with little people strapped to their backs as tail gunners. Or the faux advertisements hawking "Grade A human meat" for sale to feed the pig army. Or the hero, Rob Justice (co-writer Timur Turisbekov), a former runway model turned wasteland assassin, who can’t help but have sex with everyone, including his mustached sister Raksha (Doroteya Toleva), also a vicious assassin. Or the perpetually naked and aroused uber villain/former catwalk king Rafael, the only man with a better ass than his, as Justice proclaims during a voiceover.

It could be that this Bulgarian import from Kazakhstan eschews all norms of conventional genre cinema. Or maybe it’s just the intoxicating way that Turisbekov and the other actors speak their dialogue as if it’s the first time they’ve ever uttered words.

If you loved “Iron Sky,” prepare to go gaga for “Bullets of Justice,” an instant cult classic.

Broil
2 stars, 90 minutes, Blu-Ray and streaming

Fans of “Jerry Maguire” rejoice!

Jonathan Lipnicki, the adorable kid who knew the weight of a human head, is all grown up, and apparently no longer making smart career choices when it comes to the movies he stars in.

Lipnicki plays The Chef in “Broil,” a new horror movie about a deranged, cannibalistic family—I don’t know if they’re demons or celestial beings or a third-rate version of the Kardashians—that gets together once a year to celebrate The Harvest. Only this year, two of the family members want out of the big tradition, and they offer up their first-born teenaged daughter as penance. Things do not go as planned. A toddler gets grilled and eaten. Lots of other people die. It’s all very confusing.

Honestly, I don’t have a fucking clue what “Broil” is about. I just know it’s not very good.

Don’t Look Back
1 star, 90 minutes, Streaming


“Don’t Look Back,” the new film by Jeffrey Reddick, the guy who came up with the story outlines for “Final Destination” and “Final Destination 2,” basically ignores its own advice.

Not only did Reddick look way back 20 years to his first film for inspiration, but he also forgot everything that worked so well to make “Final Destination” an iconic horror franchise.

It’s not just that “Don’t Look Back” sucks. It’s the depth of suckage that truly offends and confounds.

“Don’t Look Back” is about a group of supposed strangers who all happen to be in a public park on the day that a beloved local philanthropist is brutally murdered while the group all watches and does nothing to intervene. Some even stream the beating in real-time on social media.

Quicker than you can say ‘no one cheats death,’ the group suddenly finds themselves being picked off, one by one, the seeming victims of karmic retribution for their inability or unwillingness to be a good Samaritan.

Only, instead of the inspired and over-the-top grand guignol deaths from the “Final Destination” series, viewers are treated to a series of underwhelming, wholly pedestrian fatalities that would barely make the opening segment on the local news.

Avoid at all costs.

Also Available as of October 13, 2020:

"Nocturne" and "Evil Eye" The last two “Welcome to the Blumhouse” thrillers are on Amazon Prime.

"Painter" This psycho-sexual thriller about artistic talent and control is streaming.

"Carmilla" This gothic vampire throwback to the days of Hammer Horror is on DVD and streaming.

John W. Allman has spent more than 25 years as a professional journalist and writer, but he’s loved movies his entire life. Good movies, awful movies, movies that are so gloriously bad you can’t help but champion them. Since 2009, he has cultivated a review column and now a website dedicated to the genre films that often get overlooked and interviews with cult cinema favorites like George A. Romero, Bruce Campbell and Dee Wallace. Contact him at Blood Violence and Babes.com, on Facebook @BloodViolenceBabes or on Twitter @BVB_reviews. Originally published by our sister paper Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Zodiac Features and CSU’s School of Film & Media Arts Team Up for New Documentary Film About Exonerated Prisoner Rickey Jackson

Posted By on Tue, Oct 20, 2020 at 1:14 PM

COURTESY OF BROKAW
  • Courtesy of Brokaw
Founded in Cleveland, Ohio by Jillian Wolstein, the mission of H.E.L.P. is to "provide hope, education, love and protection to people facing seemingly insurmountable circumstances by way of human injustices and challenges." H.E.L.P. also owns and operates the Flats East Bank restaurant Truman’s 216. All the profits from Truman’s 216 go towards helping people in need, and the restaurant also provides meals to local alternative housing shelters.

Now, H.E.L.P. has funded Lovely Jackson, a new film from Zodiac Features, the Cleveland and Los Angeles-based production company behind the 2019 thriller I See You, and Cleveland State University’s School of Film and Media Arts.

Slated to begin production this month in Northeast and Central Ohio, the film centers on Clevelander Rickey Jackson and his struggle to survive a wrongful 1975 murder conviction, death row, and 39 years in Ohio’s most dangerous prisons, something former Scene writer Kyle Swenson has written about extensively, both in articles for Scene and in his book, Good Kids, Bad City: A Story of Race and Wrongful Conviction in America.

Clevelander Matt Waldeck will produce for Zodiac Features alongside Jackson, and Frederic Lahey will oversee CSU film students’ involvement with the production.

Next month, H.E.L.P. will host a small fundraiser (either virtually or at Truman’s 216), which will include a meet-and-greet with Jackson to benefit the film and Innocent Prisoner Advocates, a program led by H.E.L.P. and Jackson which provides funding to newly released exonerated prisoners for basic necessities as they begin their new lives.

“We have been working to find Rickey a platform to tell his story his way since 2017,” says Waldeck in a press release about the film. “He’s an important figure to Cleveland’s past and future, and even though Rickey’s journey is one of real-life horror, he is a living example of our capacity as men and women to find hope, survive, love and forgive even through darker than imaginable experiences."

Waldeck says H.E.L.P.'s assistance has been crucial to getting the project up and running.

"For H.E.L.P. to step up and fund the project now, especially during a year where economics have been particularly volatile, speaks volumes about their commitment to the community and its organizational mandate," he says. "Being able to offer CSU film students the opportunity to help tell a powerful and important story like Rickey’s would be a boon to Cleveland’s burgeoning film community anytime, but is an even bigger win during an otherwise limiting semester due to COVID-19, and we look forward to working with Frederic and the School of Film and Media Arts in the coming months.”

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Monday, October 19, 2020

Locally Produced ‘Big Bad B-Movie Show’ Debuts on Channel 43

Posted By on Mon, Oct 19, 2020 at 1:28 PM

COURTESY OF 'THE BIG BAD B-MOVIE SHOW'
  • Courtesy of 'The Big Bad B-Movie Show'
Local comedian Zachariah Durr and local photographer, storyteller and actress Laura Wimbels have teamed up for The Big Bad B-Movie Show, a new weekly TV program that airs at 8 p.m. on Saturdays on Channel 43-WUAB.

Post-broadcast, the show will also stream on the Cleveland19 WOIO and CW 43 WUAB websites.

Durr, who served as a director and co-writer on the IFC comedy Food Party! for two seasons, and currently works at WOIO/WUAB as a video producer for the website CLE Weekend, has performed on bills with comics such as Reggie Watts, Tig Notaro and Dave Hill. He also co-hosts Keep Talking: A Storytelling Show at the Happy Dog, a monthly event that will return when it’s safe to do so.

A frequent contributor to the popular NPR radio show The Moth, Wimbels is a five-time Moth StorySlam winner. Her book Faces of Cleveland highlights well-known (and lesser-known!) Clevelanders.

The Big Bad B-Movie Show features a mix of "host bits, sketch comedy, movie facts and general chaos." Viewers can expect drop-in guests to the show, such as local comedians, business owners and celebs such as the Mummy and the Monkey, who host their own horror movie host show on Facebook.

"Think of our show like SNL, but with a movie — except we don't have a budget or a celebrity host, and we can't get any musical acts," Durr says in a press release, citing Vampira, Elvira and Cleveland's own Ghoulardi as inspirations. "But there will be a rubber spider."

Each episode's centerpiece is a handpicked vintage B-movie horror flick presented without commentary since the hosts "feel the movies are funny enough without them," as Durr puts it.

The program kicked off this past weekend with 1959's Attack of the Giant Leeches, a rubber-suit monster movie that was filmed in eight days.

Other films airing this season include Bucket of Blood, The Gorilla, The Hideous Sun Demon and The Devil Bat.

On the program, Durr and Wimbels portray Leopold and Lenora, two people who've been locked in the movie vault at WUAB for years with only bad B-movies to watch for entertainment.

"My mom told me when I was five years old, I saw Superhost on the WUAB Prize Movie show," Durr says. "He was dressed like a Superman with a red nose, and was introducing some rubber-suit monster movie. I turned to my mom and said, 'I want that job.' I never thought it would actually happen."

Wimbels has also been a fan of WUAB’s programming.

“[WUAB had the] best edited-for-TV horror movies on the weekends, along with the best reruns of syndicated shows," she says. "I fully credit my deep appreciation of old horror movies and classic television programs from growing up sans cable. While all of my peers were watching MTV and getting progressively cooler, I was wrapped up in Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone, which was fine by me. Ultimately, I want this show to make people smile, whether it's someone who grew up watching Cleveland's beloved movie hosts, someone younger who happens to tune in and winds up liking the absurdity they see, or someone who is completely new to b-movies and hosts."

Durr hopes it finds a wide audience.

"It's great to produce a local Cleveland show," he says. "I hope we can bring back a style of TV that brings back memories for older viewers and be engaging enough for younger ones."

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Wednesday, October 14, 2020

'Save Yourselves!' Leads a New Round of Halloween-Ready Movies to Stream Right Now

Posted By on Wed, Oct 14, 2020 at 7:38 AM

SHUDDER
  • Shudder
Hooray for October, the wickedest of months.

Yes, it’s true that 2020 has thrust us all into a world that’s scarier in real life than any unstoppable killer from a classic 1980s slasher. Despite our strange new existence that’s fraught with more peril than inching through the dark to investigate a strange noise, we have to persevere.

If you’re like me, then your safe harbor in the storm is cinema.

Here are all the new horror, science-fiction and potential cult-classic flicks that debuted in the past week to add to your queue.

The Pale Door
2 stars, 96 minutes, Blu-Ray and streaming


If you’re a horror fiend like me, you subscribe to Fangoria, and that’s exactly where I first heard about director/co-writer Aaron B. Koontz’s “The Pale Door.” This horror-western centering on two brothers, a family curse and a coven of witches has all the ingredients to be an instant cult classic. Instead, sadly, it feels wholly derivative, a Wild West redo of “From Dusk Till Dawn,” minus any of that classic’s ample gore, originality or subversive wit.

The Cleansing Hour
2 stars, 94 minutes, Shudder


Forty-seven years after the debut of “The Exorcist,” filmmakers are still trying to emulate the precision, terror and unnerving realness of William Friedkin’s classic. “The Cleansing Hour” starts strong, introducing viewers to Father Max (Ryan Guzman, “9-1-1”), a self-proclaimed savior of the damned, who livestreams exorcisms online. The catch? The show is entirely staged with a film crew. You know where this is going. Max is about to meet a real demon face-to-face. His “faith” is about to be tested in a way he is not prepared for. And that in and of itself could have been a fun, fright-filled roller-coaster. But director Damien LeVeck takes a huge swerve late in the third-act, which introduces an even better idea that should been the focus of the entire film. Instead, just when “The Cleansing Hour” gets good, it ends.

Black Box
2 stars, 100 minutes, Amazon Prime


Trust me, I get it. You’re gun shy. I am, too. After “Fantasy Island,” “Truth or Dare,” “You Should have Left,” and other recent disappointing releases, the shine has officially worn off of Blumhouse Productions. The home of “The Purge” and “Get Out” has taken some significant dings to its artistic credibility, even as the genre company moves firmly into a new entertainment vertical with the introduction of "Welcome to the Blumhouse," a spate of four original, made-for-TV movies debuting in October on Amazon Prime. The first release, “Black Box,” is a should-have-been fascinating deep dive into science fiction about a mad scientist hellbent on harnessing the brain to implant not just memories, but a human soul. If “Black Box” was intended to play like an extended episode of “Black Mirror,” it doesn’t work. Too many questions are left unanswered. And when two-thirds of your movie drags ass in search of a dramatic thrust, that’s a problem.

The Lie
3.5 stars, 97 minutes, Amazon Prime


Thankfully, the second "Welcome to the Blumhouse" release, “The Lie,” is a significant improvement, and offers hope for the last two films, which release Oct. 13. “The Lie” also isn’t a traditional horror movie, but it expertly details the insidious ways that an innocent fib can become an unstoppable force of human devastation. Peter Sarsgaard and Mireille Enos play Jay and Rebecca, parents to Kayla (Joey King, “Wish Upon”), who claims to have intentionally killed her best friend, Britney. “The Lie” is taunt, unnerving and surprising.

Save Yourselves!
4 stars, 93 minutes, Blu-Ray and streaming


“Save Yourselves!” is a hysterical riff on the first contact/alien invasion genre that places its extraterrestrial antagonists—which look like “tiny, furry footstools” according to Jack (John Reynolds)—firmly in the backseat. Jack and his girlfriend Su (Sunita Mani) are prototypical New York millennials. They spend their nights hardwired to electronic devices, whether a laptop or their phones, constantly checking emails and updating their status. When they decide to completely unplug for a week, and retreat to a friend’s remote cabin upstate, little do they know that cruel karma is about to send a blitzkrieg of space tribbles to ransack Earth. “Save Yourselves!” takes meta to a whole new level by shining a bright, uncomfortable light on our growing reliance and addiction to technology, but it also unspools a sweet love story and allows Jack and Su to discover a level of resourcefulness they never knew they possessed.

Souvenirs
3 stars, 84 minutes, streaming


Secrets, lies and murderabilia. “Souvenirs,” the debut feature from director Anna Mikami (“Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey”), tells the story of Gail (Isabella Pisacane), a young woman trapped by responsibility and left to care for her ailing grandmother, Margot (Jamie Donnelly), and the little shop of horrors where her grandmother sells macabre items culled from crime scenes and the homes of serial killers. Shortly after Gail finds a mysterious package packed with chachkies, she gets a phone call from a woman who claims the items belonged to victims of a killer that may or may not be Gail’s father. “Souvenirs” is a dark, delicious dive, and a perfect watch leading up to Halloween.

Let’s Scare Julie
3 stars, 83 minutes, streaming


Kudos to writer-director Jud Cremata for taking a huge swing and a risk with his first feature film. This slow-burn thriller, shot in one continuous take, focuses almost entirely on the origin of fear, the way an idea can induce severe dread that slowly creeps up through your chest to form a tightening knot in your throat. The idea at the core of “Let’s Scare Julie” is an urban legend about a neighborhood recluse that a group of young women decide to exploit in order to spook their friend, Emma. Cremata, to his credit, is steadfast in his decision not to show what’s happening next door. The lack of jump scares and gore may turn off some hardcore horror fans, but for people who love seeing an artist play with expectations and upend the conventional YA horror template, “Let’s Scare Julie” is a perfect late night in the dark delight.

Mass Hysteria
1.5 stars, 66 minutes, streaming

Horror comedies are a tough nut. They have to be both funny and scary, which is a difficult tightrope to navigate. “Mass Hysteria” has an excellent premise—a supernatural force consumes the iconic town of Salem, Massachusetts, on Halloween, pitting a ragtag group of witch trial re-enactment performers against a fanatical religious leader and his growing legion of minions. But when it comes to execution, “Mass Hysteria” missteps repeatedly. Jokes miss their mark. Scares never materialize. Yes, there’s gore and a few inspired sequences, but for a movie barely more than an hour long, “Mass Hysteria” is an interminable exercise in frustration.

The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw
3 stars, 93 minutes, streaming

Fresh off a festival run, including the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival, writer-director Thomas Robert Lee’s period thriller, “The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw,” is a dour rumination on the tragic consequences that accompany ignorance and fear. Fans enthralled by Robert Egger’s “The Witch” will find many similarities here. Both films use witchcraft as a means to explore the extreme beliefs of uneducated, close-minded communities. “The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw” lacks the visceral imagery, the chilling twists and the masterful storytelling that Eggers brought to play, but it still leaves an imprint.

John W. Allman has spent more than 25 years as a professional journalist and writer, but he’s loved movies his entire life. Good movies, awful movies, movies that are so gloriously bad you can’t help but champion them. Since 2009, he has cultivated a review column and now a website dedicated to the genre films that often get overlooked and interviews with cult cinema favorites like George A. Romero, Bruce Campbell and Dee Wallace. Contact him at BloodViolenceandBabes.com, on Facebook @BloodViolenceBabes or on Twitter @BVB_reviews.

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